When Women Become Mothers

When I became a mother for the first time, I was 22 years old. This April I will become a grandmother when my 22-year-old daughter gives birth. It seems that my life is poetically navigating through the family life cycle. Giving birth and becoming a mother were powerful forces in forming my identity as a young woman. Meeting life energy during labor and taking responsibility for the life of a small child turned me inward to develop my core self. I became stronger over the years, but not without battle scars along the way.

I also came face to face with the "cultural loading" that being a mother entailed. For to be a mother carried with it a far greater cultural expectation for responsibility for emotional development of children than did fathering in the family. The sense of responsibility was more weighted. If something went wrong in my child’s life, the role of being a mother meant that I would not only feel the natural empathy for the child I loved, but I would also suffer the feelings of blame that society reserved for me… especially for me, the mother!

As the years passed and my two children grew toward adulthood, I grappled with the balance between my needs and theirs, my relationship to my husband, my career and so on. And I learned about the way that others see mothers in the world, and the unconscious expectation for women who are mothers to nurture others, to cooperate and, in general, to defer to others’ needs. Part of my identity was forged by discerning when an unconscious assumption that I nurture automatically was being made, and then by discriminating whether or not I wanted to do it. The most enlightening of these turning points in awareness did not come from my family, but from a male coworker who assumed I would bring snacks and supplies to work-party meetings that we both co-led for students in training. Though nothing was asked overtly, I came to recognize the lack of acknowledgment when I did do it, and a surprised affect when it was not done as an unconscious pressure on me to caretake others in the professional setting. My own ability to see this opened up choices to me. I could take charge of when I would or would not nurture. This awareness sustained my sense of self, and I felt the power of my own determination.

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